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Mark, This is fantastic news, congratulations, and thanks in advance for you work at TWC! Looking forward to seeing what you all get up to.
"There could, to put it bluntly, be no traditional Orthodox wedding in a Romanian peasant village between two men." I absolutely agree that those of us who want to see same-sex marriage become widespread aim for the destruction of at least those parts of the traditional cultures where hatred or fear of, and discrimination against, gay members of society are made normal. That having been said, I think the above-quoted statement is wrong in some important ways. The discriminatory zeal of the 'traditional Orthodox wedding/peasant village' is doubtless correct in the limit case, but not as a general observation about the inflexibility of religion. For *all* religious traditions now willing to perform gay marriages, such marriage was first unacceptable and then became acceptable. The beliefs of the congregation are real, while the judgment of God isn't (for the obvious reason.) As a result, religions can always be updated if their adherents update their beliefs. (Indeed, if that were not true, Protestantism would have died on the vine with Luther.) Religion is far more flexible than you suggest, in other words. What matters in religion is the ability to insist that a group of the faithful is hewing to tradition, even if they are not. As a result, social change is often presented as if the congregation is returning to a deeper, older meaning of their tradition, as with the change in point of view around slavery or racism in congregations in the United States. Given that religions are social constructions, and more importantly social re-constructions, built anew every generation, what your observation says is that Romanian believers will always want to discriminate against gays. To the degree Romania is participating in the larger life of Europe, and that that larger life offers gay members of any given community the hope or expectation that they should have the same rights as straights, that seems unlikely. One of the things we have learned since Stonewall is that having uncloseted friends or relatives is the strongest predictor of rising personal tolerance, and rising personal tolerance is the strongest predictor of rising social tolerance. You also say "You can't transform an institution if you don't understand what it is and what the range of its varieties is." This is, I think, wrong in a simpler way -- it simply fails in the historical account of everything from the spread of democracy to feminism to civil rights. Very often, the people insisting on a new social compact had *no idea* what the full range of the current set of institutions was, nor did they much care. If no previous system allowed women to vote, or hold property, it wasn't necessary to study it, it was necessary to change it. Funnily enough, what you dislike about Nussbaum -- that she reasons from phoney absolutes -- is precisely what is likely to make her project successful *for the same reason religion is successful*, namely that she is articulating current practice as if there was some strong reason to believe that there is some universal form of moral or ethical behavior to aspire to. She is doing just what liberation theologists in the Catholic Church do, in other words, albeit while forgoing assertions about the existence and behavior of supernatural entities. And if there's anything we know about cosmopolitan culture, it's that it punches above it's weight. Far from being internal to some tiny group of well-off city dwellers, cosmopolitanism is one of the most successful intellectual products in human history, and one that is particularly corrosive of traditional culture. As a result, it seems to me that what Nussbaum is doing -- providing intellectual cover for disrupting traditional culture without bothering to understand it -- is likely to work as well now as it has in the past. (PS. Nussbaum's writing style may also bug you -- it does me. Try Richard Rorty for a muscular but non-absolutist defense of gay marriage (et al) instead. He dispenses with all of the appeals to universal ethics and instead presents the idea of expanded justice as in increase in the radius of people we are willing to be loyal to. Start with "Justice as Larger Loyalty.")
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Jul 12, 2010